Have you ever met someone whose personal story makes you reflect on your own life differently? Recently I was chatting with my friend Kenan Cubro and the conversation turned to his past as a Bosnian refugee. Listening, I was overcome with gratitude for the life I have been allowed to lead and the safety and security of those I love.
Escape from Bosnia
Now 33, most people would never know just how much Kenan has witnessed and overcome. He escaped the Bosnian ethnic cleansing along with his mother, father and sister (who was 2 years old at the time). They left Bosnia to save their LIVES, not simply for a better life. They left because the women were being tortured and raped and the Bosnian Muslims in the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina were being murdered by the thousands resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people by 1995.
Kenan was able to escape the slaughter only by obtaining “temporary protected status” (TPS) to go to Austria, as they had family already living there for many years. His family accompanied him on the dangerous bus ride through Bosnia to the Croatian border. At one point their bus was stopped, the men were dragged off and immediately shot in front of their families. When they came for Kenan’s father, the little boy stood in front of him screaming in complete terror. Taking pity, the Serbian official reluctantly shut the door, Kenan having effectively saved his father’s life in that moment.
Six months after arriving in Austria, 8 year old Kenan received word that his best friend back home had been killed. A mortar bomb had fallen directly outside of his home. This was devastating news, though Kenan had become resigned with the fact that he would never see anyone back home again.
The family stayed in Austria for 7 years during which Kenan had a difficult time fitting in with other children. He remembers being beat up and made fun of due to his clothing and accent. In 1999, when he was 15, the family’s TPS status was up, and they needed to move somewhere new. Through church assistance, they were able to apply to move to the U.S. with refugee status and obtain their green cards.
After moving to the U.S., Kenan worked hard to assimilate, teaching himself English and losing his accent merely by watching t.v.- mostly baseball and sports. He often was the family translator, assisting his parents with everything from job interviews to dr. visits. Over time, he has lost touch with most of his Bosnian culture, something he regrets. He now wishes that he wouldn’t have tried quite so hard to “Americanize” himself. Yet the pain that he felt as an outsider in Austria was simply too much to experience again.
What can we do?
What are we doing wrong when people feel the need to hide their ethnicity or beliefs in order to fit in? Our family members were ALL immigrants at one time. My own family is a product of immigration. My Nana, Rosa Puglisi, arrived from Sicily at age 9 and my husband’s mother Antonia escaped pre-war Nicaragua at 18.
Kenan’s account reminds us that we all have a story and we have all struggled, some more than others. These things should bind us, not blind us. In the current climate of violence, hate and distrust in our country, this is more important than ever. We must realize that most people who come to our country are not here to steal our jobs, lower our wages or commit crime. You may think that this story doesn’t apply to you or affect you because you don’t know anyone like Kenan. However, we are all impacted by immigration laws and who they allow us the privilege or failure to meet.
Looking to the Future
Today, Kenan is fluent in 3 languages: Bosnian, German and English. He is unquestionably a successful and accomplished citizen of the U.S., having obtained his citizenship at the age of 27. Married to his beautiful wife, Jen, with a new house and adorable pup Ollie. He often thinks about what might have been had he not had to leave his home. This he knows: few things are worse than the terror he lived, but it has made him stronger and more driven to succeed.
If I could have you take anything away from this post, it would be that we are all important and we all have something valuable to give to the world. It isn’t right to make someone feel like an outsider or that they aren’t here for the “right” reasons. Let’s hope someday all immigrants will feel as Kenan does: empowered, accomplished and like they belong, because they do.
Be kind to those you meet today and everyday.